Kentucky Democrats Should Not Play it Safe Against McConnell

For most Democrats, beating Mitch McConnell in 2020 has become almost as important as defeating Donald Trump. When you look at the majority leader’s approval ratings in his home state, it actually seems possible. According to Morning Consult, his net approval rating is under water at -14 percent. But heading in to his re-election in 2014, we saw the same thing. In the end, McConnell went on to beat his Democratic challenger, Alison Lundgren Grimes, by over 15 points.

During that election, it was clear that Democrats in Kentucky were trying to play it safe in a deeply red state. Lundergan Grimes tip-toed around her support for Obamacare, even though Kynect—the Kentucky version—had insured over 500,000 people and was wildly popular. She even skirted answering a question about whether or not she had voted for Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012.

But it wasn’t just Lundergan Grimes who was trying to play it safe. Take a look at how Kentucky Democratic House Speaker Greg Stumbo answered a question from Joe Sonka about whether or not Obama deserved credit for the 500,000 Kentuckians who now had health insurance.

“I think they should be grateful for Gov. Beshear mainly,” said Stumbo. “You know, we call it Beshearcare. Because, to me, what Obama messed up in Washington, that mess up there is Obamacare … (Beshear’s) version of the Affordable Care Act is a little bit different, I think, than what Obama does up in Washington. Obama makes a mess out of everything. Gov. Beshear, to his credit, has extended benefits to 500,000 working Kentuckians and elderly Kentuckians who never had coverage before, so he should be credited for that.”

Even back in 2014, Sonka thought that was a mistake for Democrats.

Wanting to win key state House races this year that will determine the chamber’s majority, they want people to think Democrats are for the “Beshearcare” they like but against the “Obamacare” and president they hate. The problem is that back in the real world, these two are the exact same thing. If you support Kynect, you support Obamacare by default, which millions of dollars of GOP ads will point out.

This strategy of bashing Obama to save yourself may be a “safe” way to inoculate in the short-term…but in the long term it likely ruins the brand of being a “Democrat” in this state. Try as they might to trash Obama and say he’s something different, voters in the ballot box still see the same “D” next to his name and theirs’. Plenty of Democrats have actual real disagreements with Obama on policy, but this manufactured stiff-arming of the ACA only serves to poison the well even further on a revolutionary health care reform that could be their shining accomplishment to show off to voters.

The strategy embraced by Lundergan Grimes and articulated by Stumbo is the approach that was often taken in the past by Democrats in southern states. Regardless of whether or not it was successful in some areas, it was clearly not a winning strategy against Mitch McConnell.

Some of the same Democrats who tried to play it safe back in 2014 are now enthused about the candidacy of Amy McGrath. While she has stepped up her game since she lost her congressional race in 2018 and is running some pretty effective ads aimed at taking on McConnell, she is coming off as unsure of how to approach this race against the majority leader.

Not long after McGrath announced her candidacy, she said that, if she’d been in the Senate at the time, she probably would have voted to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. After a backlash broke out among Democrats, she changed her mind and said that was a mistake. The whole episode made her look weak, which is deadly in a race against McConnell.

During an interview on MSNBC, McGrath identified herself as a “moderate,” which might not be a bad position to take in Kentucky. But take a look at how she defined the race.

“Kentuckians voted for Trump, they wanted to drain the swamp,” McGrath said. “And Trump said he was going to do that. Trump promised to bring back jobs, he promised to lower drug prices for so many Kentuckians. And that is very important. And who stops them along the way, who stops the president from doing these things? Well, Mitch McConnell.”

That sounds like a calculated strategy to pursue in a state that Trump won by almost 30 points in 2016. But to blame Mitch McConnell for Trump’s failures strains the imagination. The two have consistently worked as a team in efforts that have hurt the working people of Kentucky.

During the 2018 midterms we saw candidates like Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum, and Beto O’Rouke discard the old Democratic playbook in the south and, while they didn’t win their statewide races, came closer that Democrats have in years. They did that by being authentic, progressive, and inclusive. Perhaps it’s time to try that playbook in Kentucky, which is why this announcement might spice things up in that state.

Kentucky Sports Radio host Matt Jones is forming an exploratory committee for a potential U.S. Senate bid against Mitch McConnell in 2020.

Jones, a Democrat, told the Courier Journal he expects to come to a final decision on such a run after the election for statewide offices this November…

Having recently signed a deal with publisher Simon & Schuster to co-author a book that is critical of McConnell, he plans to spend the next two months traveling to all 120 counties in the state on an unconventional book tour, where he’ll listen to Kentuckians and use what he hears to write the book — as well as learn whether a Senate bid would be viable for him.

The title of Jones’ book is, “Mitch, Please! How Mitch McConnell Sold Out Kentucky (and America Too).”

Back in January, I wrote that Jones might just be the guy who could beat Mitch McConnell. Here is how he was described by Adam Willis.

Jones is a liberal populist—an outspoken champion of worker’s rights, a pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, pro-wrestling NASCAR enthusiast—looking to recapture the Trump vote from Republicans in a state the president won by nearly 30 points in 2016…

When pressed, he identifies as a “Southern populist progressive,” wary of using the term “liberal” in his home state. He is a proponent of Obamacare and marijuana legalization, generally an advocate of free trade and lowering the corporate tax, bullish on union rights and a vocal opponent of corporate welfare. These stances almost universally find root not in party allegiance but in the effect on Kentucky’s working class, a mooring so deep that Jones says he would vote against his personal beliefs in the Senate—on coal, for instance—if he felt it was in the best interest of his constituents.

But when it comes to beating McConnell, this is the part that stood out.

Appealing to the working class happens to be where Jones excels. As a radio host, Jones has made a living taking aim at the people that he sees as Kentucky’s bullies, from Pitino to Bevin. “This is a guy who lives to annoy elites, This is a guy who lives to offend the haughty,” says Adam Edelen, Kentucky’s former state auditor and Jones’ New Kentucky Project co-founder. Jones says McConnell is the biggest bully of all, one who he alone has the platform, the policy expertise and the brazen confidence to take down.

In other words, Jones is certainly not the kind of guy who would play it safe.

Amy McGrath would be a great Democratic senator from Kentucky, while Matt Jones would probably be a bit of a loose cannon. I suspect that’s why Minority Leader Schumer worked so hard to recruit McGrath. But regardless of which one winds up on the ballot in 2020, the most important thing is to end the senate career of Mitch McConnell. That won’t happen if Kentucky Democrats continue to play it safe.

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Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60.